I’ve noted this before, but it’s worth mentioning again: the core of the current Hollywood business model is milking properties that already have pre-existing fanbases. That’s why every other movie these days is an adaption, sequel, reboot, reimagining, spinoff, or entry in an expanded universe. The latest film in this trend is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a strange prequel/spinoff in the Harry Potter Universe (Sorry, I mean to say J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World) that is intended to launch a new series in this continuity.
This movie is ostensibly based on a book of the same name by J.K. Rowling, but in a really unorthodox sense. You see, the book itself was evidently a fake text book concerning magical creatures that exist in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. In other words, from what I can tell, the book had no actual story, which means that this movie (which obviously does have a story) is more a case of borrowing a name than anything else. Having said that, Rowling herself actually did write the film (indeed, she has sole writing credit), so at the very least this picture has the benefit of being consistent with the author’s vision of this world.
Overall, I’d say that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t half bad, but it is a little under three-fourths good. Enough of it succeeds on its own merits for it to be relatively enjoyably, but there are some definite drawbacks and missed opportunities.
The plot balances two intertwining threads. The first involves Newt Scamander, an English wizard who travels to New York City in the roaring 20s, accidentally lets loose a bunch of magical creatures from a magical suitcase he carries with him, and has to go around the city in order to find them, making new friends along the way, and getting accustomed to America’s magical community. The second thread involves involves uncovering a mystery concerning abused wizards whose magical abilities have been suppressed (we learn that this is very dangerous for them and those around them) which eventually leads to the revealing of a new villain for this world.
The first thread mostly works. The moments showing Scamander and his companions interacting with various magical creatures are pretty entertaining. The creatures themselves are fairly imaginative, and there is a nice sense of whimsy whenever they’re on screen. These moments are aided by a relatively effective cast. Acclaimed actor Eddie Redmayne mostly succeeds as Scamander, whom he plays as a quirky-yet-reserved individual; although at times he does utilize a little too much mumbling to emphasize Scamander’s awkward nature, which becomes somewhat off putting. Still, I found myself believing in his performance. Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol are great as a pair of sisters who help Scamander out. Each embodies a very different sensibility and personality, making them feel appropriately distinct from each other and dynamic for the plot. The actor who steals the show, though, is Dan Fogler as a No-Maj (AKA Muggle AKA Non-magical person) who, through a series of chance occurrences, discovers the Wizarding World and joins Scamander on his quest. His character is really enjoyable. He serves as something of an agent for the audience, providing relatable perspective on the whole “magic” thing. That he is also good-natured, generally intelligent, and funny without being a buffoon is highly appealing and a sign of good writing. He really gives the movie some heart. Moreover, though my knowledge of the Harry Potter series is far from extensive*, through virtue of being a sympathetic non-magical main character, he is, I believe, something of a first for this series, and that’s definitely a nice change of pace.
Unfortunately the second thread is somewhat less successful. The beats involving abused wizards — in this case, children under the care of a puritanical, abusive guardian — are admittedly interesting and draw some intriguing parallels to contemporary social problems, but they are not developed well enough. It feels as though chunks of the story involving the nature of the abuse and the consequences stemming from it are simply missing from the movie. Furthermore, the social commentary aspect is merely touched on in the movie, but no attempt at a serious digression or analysis is made, which feels like a lost opportunity for this film to really say something that contemporary audiences could find meaningful. The villain of the picture is also pretty weak; he is uninteresting as written and what little motivation he has feels like a ripoff from better antagonists in other films; I can’t say I enjoyed him. It looks as though the filmmakers are trying to set him up as the new Voldemort for this series, but I really don’t see him having the same kind of staying power.
Other aspects of the movie are hit and miss. New York City in the roaring 20s is admittedly an interesting choice for the setting; and the film does have some fun with it, showing magical variations on the music, style, and general ambience of that era; although it doesn’t mine it as much as you might expect. Unfortunately, setting the film in New York City in the winter in the 20s also means that much of this movie feels grey in terms of aesthetics. This is balanced out somewhat by some vibrant, colorful scenes with heavy use of magic, but not nearly enough. So much of this movie is cloudy and wet and cold, and it’s simply not appealing to look at. Also — and this is admittedly more of a nitpick than a real criticism — why exactly have magical wands been reduced to the supernatural equivalent of guns in this series? Granted, there are a few actual spells cast here and there, and wands are possibly** used for teleportation (which occurs frequently in the film), but the default use of wands in this movie seemed to be firing nondescript energy beams or creating nondescript energy shields to block said beams. Can’t we be a little more creative with what these wands can do? This is a world of magic, after all. Doesn’t anyone remember how whimsical the wand usage was in the first Harry Potter movie? Maybe we should try to get back to that.
As I think about my issues with setting and plot, I find myself reflecting on a scene that occurs about mid-way through this picture. It involves Scamander and Folger’s characters climbing into Scamander’s magical briefcase and entering an entire magical world inside where all of Scamander’s creatures live. It’s a very engaging, vivacious moment in the film that, to some degree, stands in contrast with the most of the rest of the film around it. I wonder whether or not this movie might have been better had the entire movie been more like this scene. Maybe instead of journeying to New York City in the 20s, Scamander could journey inside a magical world full of magical creatures, and spend the entire time inside interacting with them; sort of like a magical Avatar. Far be it from me to question the plan of J.K. Rowling, but I think I would have wanted to see a film that was more like that, rather than the one we got.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is certainly far from perfect and definitely ranks well below the best Harry Potter entries. Moreover, I have serious doubts about this particular film being able to spawn a series that is either artistically or commercially successful in its totality. Still, keeping perspective, I did ultimately enjoy the movie, mostly for the characters and also for the creatures that we do see. They do, in the end, compensate enough for what is lackluster in the picture such that I will not discourage people from seeing it. I think Harry Potter fans will appreciate having another story in this world, and general audiences will find enough to like here to make their experience worthwhile. Time will tell whether or not this film will be seen as a successful extension of the Harry Potter brand or a cinematic whiff. Until then, though, I will remain positive, take what I can get, and give this movie a passing grade. Let’s just hope any and all sequels are noticeable improvements.
*I have only read the first four Harry Potter books and I have only seen the first, second, third, fourth, and final Harry Potter movies, so if something in one of the entries I haven’t seen/read contradicts that, I happily rescind that statement.
**It was hard for me to tell, so the jury is still out on that one.